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One of the first people to return to live performances this week after the state’s restrictions on public gatherings were lifted to 50 people will be a man many Mainers have been watching crack jokes on his Facebook page about his own experience in quarantine in recent months.
Maine comedian Bob Marley, whose Crona Watch 2020 videos have attracted thousands of viewers since March, will perform 10 shows at Jonathan’s in Ogunquit, June 3-7, seven shows at Morgan Hill Event Center in Hermon June 11-13, and two shows at the Bangor Drive-In on June 17. In Ogunquit and Hermon, each show will be for audiences of 50 people or fewer.
“He’s willing to work twice as hard to play to the same amount of people,” said Morgan Hill owner Ryan Conely, who says he’s able to host shows at his 600-capacity venue because Morgan Hill has a restaurant permit in addition to an entertainment permit. “He’s willing to go that far, and so are we.”
Marley’s shows across Maine are the exception to the rule, however. Unlike many other segments of the public-facing economy, including retail, bars and restaurants, lodging, salons and gyms, live performance venues have been given essentially no guidance as to when they might be able to start hosting regular events again. On the state’s timeline laying out when different types of businesses can fully reopen, venues of any kind — for-profit or nonprofit, large or small — are nowhere to be found.
The largest venues in the state, such as the 16,000-capacity Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion in Bangor, the 8,000-capacity Maine Savings Pavilion in Westbrook, the 5,000-capacity Thompson’s Point in Portland, or either the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor or Cross Insurance Arena in Portland, will likely not be able to hold any events this summer, and possibly fall. For venues that are also licensed as restaurants, such as Morgan Hill or Jonathan’s, entertainment can be offered alongside dining, but still at that 50-person limit.
For most smaller venues without restaurant facilities and that are, in some cases, nonprofit, the ability to reopen at any point this summer remains a big unknown. Will they be allowed to? Under what restrictions? Is it even safe to open anyway?
“Under these limitations I don’t know any music venue, large or small, that can open and operate under these extreme capacity restrictions and have it prove financially feasible,” said Lauren Wayne, general manager of the 1,800-capacity State Theatre in Portland, which also operates Thompson’s Point and the 500-capacity Port City Music Hall. “There isn’t a way to pivot our business model. We are making zero revenue. And we still have staff, rent, utilities and bills to pay.”
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Joshua Gass, managing director of arts nonprofit Launchpad, the organization that operates the Bangor Arts Exchange, a 185-capacity performing arts venue in Bangor, said that his venue doesn’t have any events planned until the second week of July. But he’s still uncertain if those will be able to go on as planned, given that there is no direction from the state as to when venues will be allowed to open.
“Without a timeline or clear communication on what restrictions are being considered, it is practically impossible for us to plan for reopening,” said Gass. “This has obviously been a difficult time for everyone, but our industry is particularly at risk, being one of the last to be allowed to reopen and often with few options for adapting their operations in the short term.”
In response to questions about state guidelines for performance venues, a Maine Department of Economic and Community Development spokeswoman referred to a COVID-19 prevention checklist for large social gatherings such as weddings that recommends strict social distancing and other considerations for event planners. Gov. Janet Mills’ administration has not said when the 50-person cap on gatherings could be eased or lifted altogether.
Nick Turner, executive director of the nonprofit Grand Theatre in Ellsworth, considers his organization lucky, as it qualified for a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, and was granted funds by both the Maine Arts Commission and the Maine Community Foundation. Nevertheless, he remains frustrated by some of the guidelines, including uniform capacity limits for venues with widely varying physical sizes.
“My main frustration in guidance from the state is the lack of consideration given capacity and potential safe service to patrons,” said Turner. “We have 480 seats. The Collins Center [in Orono] has 1,435. A 50-person limit is arbitrary and confusing, given those numbers.”
Gass and other Bangor-area arts leaders sent a letter to Bangor’s city council last week, asking for the budget of the city’s Commission on Cultural Development to be doubled to $30,000, with that extra $15,000 to be used to help arts nonprofits pay their operating costs while they are shut down. The council will take up the matter during a budget workshop on Wednesday evening. Wayne, of the State Theatre in Portland, has also organized a group of venue operators around the state to discuss best practices and lobby for access to grants and loans.
Not knowing what will happen is the hardest part, said Conely of Morgan Hill.
“We’re trying to go off what state officials and lawmakers tell us, but right now, it’s just based on opinions and feelings and what they hope might happen,” he said. “We still don’t have a definitive date, so we just kind of have to hope that we can resume normal operations later in the summer.”
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